Property of the U.S. government
As attitudes about property management shift, agencies and IT rush to catch up
Agencies face significant changes in the way they manage property, and some have concerns that the limitations of available information technology and the prevalence of old-school thinking could cripple needed advances.
Agencies have until June 30 to submit their initial management assurance statements about internal controls for financial reporting to the Office of Management and Budget. Internal controls are only one facet of property management described in Executive Order No. 13327, issued in February 2004, in OMB Circular A-123 and other federal policies.
The changing needs of government create a challenge for federal property managers, said Joe Kull, director of financial management services in the federal practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Kull said changing work patterns, the rise of telework and the potential for an outbreak of a communicable disease have changed the government’s real property needs.
Government also has done a poor job of managing property and maintaining records on it over time, he said. “Many agencies never had written records.”
Lora Muchmore, acting director of business enterprise integration in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, was hired 11 years ago to develop economic models for Defense Department budgeting. When she asked her supervisors for data on property use, she said, she was given reports still sealed in cellophane coated in a thick layer of dust.
“I found out over the next couple of years that the data we were collecting was to generate these reports that sit in somebody’s filing cabinet,” she said. But the situation has greatly improved since those early years. “We now have policies that are more or less in synch.”
A push for better management of facilities is going to drive greater improvements, said Stan Kaczmarczyk, acting deputy administrator in the General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy.
The data collection may seem tedious to agency managers who have not had to worry much about it in the past, Kaczmarczyk said. “But it’s not like we’re comic book collectors. We’re not collecting it just to show what we have.”
David Baxa, president and chief executive officer of Vista Technology Services, said agencies should proceed carefully when changing their reporting practices. Too often, he said, agencies are tempted to dress up their existing processes and submit
information to OMB for approval when they have no serious intention of changing anything.
“Plans need to be forward-looking and provide more visibility,” Baxa said. “That leads to changes in business processes, and they need to be well-thought-out and documented.”
However, Muchmore said that action needs support from technology, and she isn’t sure that existing software systems can do what will be needed. “We need to automate our processes. We need to stop saying we need to do it, and just do it. [But] the IT out there today doesn’t support what we need to do.”
Ideally, a facilities management system should be seamless, Muchmore said. When an agency issues a contract, the system should update the various databases that need the new information and immediately begin to track performance metrics.
Often, she said, vendors offer a flashy presentation and a system with impressive graphics. But, she added, “if you don’t have the data behind [the graphics] that’s going to support your business processes, you’ve just bought a tool” and nothing else.
Kull said that in the past an organization’s IT team dictated what the organization could do. The mentality was that if the IT supported an idea, the agency could act on the idea.
The thinking is different today, Kull said. “‘No, no, no,’” he said agencies should say. “‘This is what I need to do,’” and technology providers or IT departments are responsible for making the technology support the agency’s vision.
Kull said agencies should focus on performance, not merely complying with emerging mandates. “Compliance is the lowest bar of performance,” he said. “So many agencies check off the boxes [indicating they’ve done the minimum required] and throw it over the transom. They don’t care if it sticks at OMB, and many in OMB have the same mind-set.”